The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education held its March meeting remotely, under the Governor’s emergency provisions during the pandemic. The agenda focused almost entirely on the Department’s response to and organization for education during this time.
Public comment focused almost entirely on the state report on the Boston Public Schools and the Memorandum between the district and the state. Three Boston City Councilors, the student Boston School Committee representative, and several parents all testified, asking that the MOU be frozen, particularly given current conditions. Kim Janey, President of the City Council, said “our schools have been struggling for decades, there’s no questions about that, but our city is best equipped to handle these problems,” saying “the superintendent’s plan is a great place to start.” Annissa Essaibi-George, chair of the City Council’s Education Committee, said “nothing in the report was surprising to me…real meaningful partnership is what’s needed.” Lydia Edwards, the councilor representing East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End, said that COVID–19 is going to exacerbate the issues students are dealing with and the district has other issues it is dealing with right now; she said, “it’s not the right time; it’s a false sense of urgency; and it’s insulting to many in the city right now.” Evelyn Reyes, the student representative on the Boston School Committee, said “in the midst of a public health crisis, we cannot hope to address the concerns in the MOU.” She said that while the report highlights many weak spots, those are weak spots that the community has been calling out for many years, and it is important that action steps be shared with the community. Jessica Tang, BTU President, said the district is working on the urgent issues of students during this pandemic; she said,”the challenges are unprecedented, further noting “the state’s record in Boston is terrible.” Several speakers noted the historic underfunding of urban districts and called for a partnership rather than a takeover.
Later in the meeting, Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said “there appears to have been some misunderstanding.” The Department and the district agreed early on that work on the MOU would be pushed off until later in the spring, perhaps even to summer; this was known to the district and shared with the BTU. “This is not a receivership; this is a not a zone,” said the Commissioner. There will be specific targets over the next three years, with targeted support on Boston’s lowest performing schools. The Department will work with the district on improving buses and on time arrival, improving the bathrooms, supporting with PD, coaching, and technical assistance, and providing support in diversifying teaching corps. The Commissioner also noted “Boston is currently one of the wealthiest per pupil spending districts in the state.”
Chair Katherine Craven said she appreciated all the work that is being done by teachers across the state, and she hoped that new life and innovation might be able to rise from these times. Secretary James Peyser thanked the Commissioner and the Deparment for their work, the staff of schools across the state, and said,”it is parents who are really on the front lines of this work.” He reiterated that April is to be a month of learning, not of vacation, adding “we’re not writing off this school year; we can’t write off this school year.”
Commissioner Jeffrey Riley then updated the Board on the actions taken by the Department over the past several weeks: the March 15 order to close all schools until April 7, the extension of that to May 4 on March 25, DESE itself moving to nearly entirely remote work.
The Commissioner said they recognize that shutting schools down can be traumatic to students, and that it is important to get them into a routine, but “first, get students fed.” Over the weekend, the USDA approved a further waiver, allowing reimbursement to districts that have less than 50% of students identified as receiving free and reduced price lunches; the Commissioner acknowledged that the reality was that many districts had gone ahead of the waiver and simply fed the students, regardless, “and we can’t thank them enough.” There are now over 1200 sites to feed kids.
Last week, the Commissioner strongly recommended that districts continue to pay their hourly employees, suggesting that ways be found for them to continue to work for the districts. Tuition payments for day and residential special programs should continue, to maintain essential system capacity; “most residential schools remain open at this time” and day programs have agreed to provide services. Circuit breaker reimbursement remains for such funding.
The Department early on provided the waiver of 180 days; districts are required only to go through their scheduled 185th day. There will be guidance around possibly working through April vacation tomorrow. The measurement of chronic absenteeism under the state accountability system is based on only the first 120 days of school. The Commissioner expects the Legislature at act on the deadline (tomorrow) of the Student Opportunity Act, “which I recognize is late.”
Regarding the MCAS, the state expects the official waiver on this year’s testing from U.S. Ed later this week; the expectation is that the Legislature will grant him the authority to waive or alter the state’s grade by grade testing requirements, as well as the high school graduation requirement.
Regarding remote learning guidance, the Commissioner emphasized that the safety of students is most important, and that this will disproporiately impact our most vulnerable students. it is most important that teachers be in contact with their students regularly. The intent of the Department that students be engaged in meaningful learning for approximately half the regular school day; that should be a combination of teacher directed and student directed. Remote learning, the Department repeatedly has emphasized, does not necessarily mean online learning.
Educator licensure deadlines have been extended to up to 90 days after end of the emergency closure. There will be more information coming on the path to licensure, as the Deparment is aware that this has become complicated in several ways. Districts received a SIMS extension from March 19 to the 26; nearly everyone has made it by that deadline. The Department is reviewing educator evaluation; it is not regulatory, but is covered in collective bargaining agreements. There has been “a lot of communication with stakeholders, including a letter to families. Regarding high school graduation: it will depend on going back. On federal stimulus, the Department will update as more is known, as well as FY21 budgeting.
Russell Johnston, the Senior Associate Commissioner, then updated on special education, for which a FAQ has been provided here. He noted that federal guidance has shifted in past few weeks: if districts were not providing any services, then they were not required to provide special education services, but if districts were providing general education services, then the requirement for a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) was in place. Massachusetts had sat in the middle. The Department has recommend how districts could be in touch with families, in order to provide continuity of learning, and continuity of experience. We “weren’t in the situation of nothing or everything.” The Department worked to gather as much stakeholder input as quickly as possible. The Department emphasizes “very close communication with families,” with materials sent home made more accessible, made more engaging. Districts are to work on problem solving together, helping family members prioritize how students can be engaged. The Department sent out the idea of office hours. They have proposed using a team approach: should a teacher need to tend to family, services to students can continue. The work will continue on more unique, specialized ways of supporting our most vulnerable students.
As part of what the Department has done to prepare for the continued closure, a review of regulations was conducted; there are a number of deadlines contained in them that will be difficult for districts to meet. For example, non-resident students have a deadline tomorrow of submitting the tuition application to their own district of residence; for school finance, districts are required to provide info on or before April 15. Thus the Board was asked to adopt an emergency regulation. As with the emergency regulation adopted for the Student Opportunity Act, the regulation can be adopted for a period of time, then sent out for public comment before a longer adoption. DESE legal counsel Rhoda Schneider said this power would be used “only as necessary, only for good cause in state of emergency” and the Department “will provide advance notice” to Board. The regulation passed unanimously on a roll call.
The Commissioner also noted that this was the final meeting of Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson, after nearly 40 years of service in the Department, whom he called “irreplaceable.” The Deputy Commissioner said “I feel a little bit guilty about abandoning the ship in the middle of a typhoon.” Several members thanked him for his service and hoped to honor him in person at a later date.
The Board is scheduled to meet next on April 28.